How to detect Stealth Aircraft?

Modern stealth aircraft boast of being able to avoid detection using a variety of stealth technologies that reduce reflection and emission of radar, infrared, visible light, radio frequency spectrum and audio. But stealth is not a cloak of invisibility, rather the technology simply delays detection and tracking providing a tactical advantage in aerial battles and enemy defence mechanisms.

How can radars detect and track stealth fighters and successfully target them with radar guided weapons when flying over their territories? The strategy has to take into account the heat, sound and other emissions as well as physical characteristics of the aircraft to locate and attack it.

If a stealth fighter is carrying external fuel tanks – as is often the case in reconnaissance missions – it is not technically in stealth mode. Also, any device fitted on the ventral side of the aircraft will enhance its cross section and be more easily detectable on radar. Any tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft with empennage surfaces such as tail-fins, for example, the F-22 Raptor, F-35, PAK-FA, J-20 or J-31 are not invisible to enemy radar either.

how to detect stealth aircraft

Essentially, the aircraft must be optimized to defeat higher-frequency bands. The low observable signature of the aircraft will cause a resonant effect once the frequency wavelength exceeds a certain threshold. This occurs when a feature on the aircraft, such as a tail-fin is less than eight times the size of a particular frequency wavelength. Radar absorbent material coatings containing carbon black particles or tiny iron spheres on every surface of the stealth fighter can further help conceal the aircraft.

Civilian Air Traffic Control radars are almost certainly able to detect and track tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft because they operate at a lower-frequency band. But aircraft that lack many of the features that cause a resonance effect, for example, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, are more effective against low- frequency radars than aircraft such as the F-35 or F-22. However, those low-frequency radars do not provide enough detailed coordinates to guide a missile onto target. In addition, a fire control system would be required in the case of an ATC radar.

Countries are developing advanced UHF and VHF band early warning radars that use longer wavelengths to cue their radars on a stealth fighter’s approximate approach direction. Still, VHF and UHF band radars come with large radar resolution cells meaning that contacts are not tracked accurately and with the required precision to guide a weapon on target. In fact, missions do not require cloaking devices if the threat can see it but can’t do anything about it.

In general, the design of the stealth aircraft should be aimed at reducing radar and thermal detection. The design’s top priority should satisfy a list of conditions which ultimately decide the success of the aircraft. These include reducing the thermal emission from thrust, reducing radar detection by altering physical characteristics of the general configuration (such as minimal radar cross section), decreasing radar detection when the aircraft opens its weapons bay and lessening the degree of infra-red and radar detection during adverse weather conditions. In the case of the B-2, its operational altitude imposes a flight time for defensive weapons that make it virtually impossible to engage the aircraft. And aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 can open their bays, deploy munitions and return to stealthy flight in less than a second. There is, however, always a trade-off between stealth or range and payload.

Industry experts suggest a combination of high-speed data-links and low-frequency phased-array radars to identify the presence of stealth aircraft and generate a weapons quality track. To overcome this, stealthy tactical aircraft will often operate alongside electronic attack platforms like the Boeing EA-18G Growler. Since detection is all about the signal-to-noise ratio, low observable reduce the signal, while electronic attack increases the noise. The U.S. navy and Lockheed are already working in these areas of stealth technology thereby creating the need to develop even more sophisticated sensors that cue radars about the invisible blackbirds that roam our skies.

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  • Max Glazer

    RUssian NEBO-M AESA VHF radar is accurate enough to guide a missile close enough for missiles own seeker to find the target.

  • Dhimas Afihandarin

    Why everytime low frequency radar brought up.. there always argument “They we’rent accurate enough” Just what kind of accuracy needed to guide Fighter jets for Intercept target ?

    and what kind of accuracy needed to cue higher band radar ? (As detection range also correlates to volume..lower volume to search=longer dwell time possible=longer range)

    All these low band radar in market now practically have nothing to limit their accuracy..unlike airborne platform where size+weight does matter. Those radaras can be as big as needed and can have any processing power they need.

    Cruise missiles ? guided bombs ?… There are no reason why these big radars can’t be mobile. Or even defend themselves.

  • Larry Cook

    Great when article exist to show how to defeat “stealth”. But you expect the other guy’s smart people do not have their own ideas? Stealth is just one facet of surviving in today’s air combat theater. Training those pilots to take advantage of the pluses of their aircraft, now is yet another. Flying the best toys, means nothing, if the pilot is the weakest link.
    And reading the article, seems to me, you tweak the system, and look for the holes in the sky. Probably if the hole is moving, and not a glitch in the system, you got the incoming stealth plane. Or slave radar systems, using one unit for sending the pulse, and the other to observe and report any side band leakage, because one factor of stealth, is re-directing that signal anywhere but back to the sending unit. So there will be some leakage, and that should be able to be received. Different frequency agile radars are being developed, and such units will mean stealth will become just an expensive paint job.
    Sending interceptors to the area, based on low freq. results, well you do not think that those same stealth fighters will not know, and be waiting for their chance to knock such out of the skies?
    Sooner or later, the present generation of stealth, will become old hat, and something new will need to be invented to continue to benefit from the concept. The first ”stealth” bomber, the Hotha 229 bomber, example in storage in America, would have defeated the early example of radar, and given it just the margin to ensure interception will be too late to deter its mission. But never produced in number large enough to do the job, just a historic footnote. But it is remarkable, that our present B-2 is almost the same overall size of the early American bomber flying wing.

    • Dick Fitzwell

      If one actually thinks stealth technology is the ultimate goal . Maybe they should think again. Every modern fighter has onboard radar , which is ultimately scanning the sky around itself. And if you think of pulses of radar waves continuously searching as a way to track the craft . Say with a pulse variant scanner . That searches for radar signals of the numerous frequencies available . It is pretty much like painting a picture of itself and its location . In any case a single drone could be fittted with scanner and be utilized to find threats from even ground based surface to air installations. If also fitted to such missile defence system and said missiles, thereats could be destroyed easily .